Capturing ‘Sacred Spaces’ at the Penn Museum

Ahmet Ertug captured this image of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  Credit: Penn Museum Ahmet Ertug captured this image of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Credit: Penn Museum

Martha Stewart has inspired countless home-cooked meals and craft projects, but it’s surprising to hear the doyenne of domesticity was the inspiration behind the Penn Museum’s new exhibit, “Sacred Spaces: The Photography of Ahmet Ertug.”

As curator Robert Ousterhout, professor of the history of art at Penn explains, “I appeared on ‘The Martha Stewart Show’ three years ago and took her on a tour of Cappadocia, which is a volcanic region in central Turkey. When I asked her how she’d gotten interested in Cappadocia, she said that she’d seen the spectacular photographs of Ahmet Ertug and decided that she just had to come.”

Ertug, a Turkish photographer trained as an architect, captures large-scale images of wall and ceiling paintings in Byzantine churches from Istanbul and Cappadocia, ranging from the sixth through the 14th centuries.

The images, many as large as 5 feet tall, capture the rich artwork in these spaces in vivid detail. “In spite of their size,” Ousterhout says, “his photographs are absolutely crystal clear. Having worked on my own research in Istanbul and Cappadocia, I can say that I see more detail in his photographs than I’m able to see in many of the buildings themselves.”

A few of Ertug’s photographs were put on display at the museum in the fall of 2011, but space has finally allowed for the exhibition to be shown in its entirety starting this weekend. The 24 photographs are accompanied by a digital slide show of the churches’ exteriors as well as an interactive kiosk to explain the iconography on display in the churches.

How to view it

“One can approach it as simply elegant works of art. One can look at it from a religious perspective and see that these are churches that tell stories from the Bible. Or one can look at it as documenting a vanishing landscape,” says Ousterhout. “Right now in Turkey, there is a very strong Islamic movement within the government that is flexing its muscles, and a number of the historic sites which were originally churches and [then] functioned as museums have been reopened as mosques and their decoration is now less accessible. These photographs brilliantly capture images of a period of history whose record is being threatened.”

‘Sacred Spaces: The Photography of Ahmet Ertug’
Opening April 12
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
$15, 215-898-4000